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Charissa Pizarro  

SISP Producing Policy

Addressing the Trauma of Family Separations at the Border

Charissa Pizarro

The US-Mexico border is often a lifesaving portal for many individuals and families who attempt to escape extreme poverty, warfare, drug violence, domestic violence, gang violence, and similar traumas from their country of origin. To deter entry via the US-Mexico boundary, there are apprehensions and detentions of individuals and families. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2018, there was a dramatic increase in apprehensions with a total of 467,000 arrests. The spike in apprehensions is believed to be accounted for by the influx of family units entering the US (Pew Research Center, 2019). For example, in 2018, there was a total of 163,000 family units detained, a record high since 2012.

In addition to experiencing detentions, families who enter the US via the border may also be separated. During the Zero Tolerance Policy from April 2018 to June 2018, there was a. substantial increase of family separations. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG), as of December 2018, 2, 737 children were identified as separated from their parents. It is of note that this number seems to be an underestimate of family separation (HHS OIG, 2019). Amnesty International published a report in October 2018 with revised numbers and stated that 6,000 family units were separated from April to August 2018 alone. A heaping total of about 8,000 families were reported to have been separated in 2017 and 2018 (Amnesty International, 2018).  Children who are taken into custody at the border are transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) who then places the child in the least restrictive environment which may be reunification with a family member, if available, or placement with Child Protective Services.

Consequences of separating children from their parents are shown to disrupt attachment in children and have negative consequences for cognitive, physical, and emotional development into adulthood (Muniz de Pena et al., 2019). There is also increased risk for psychopathology across the lifespan. Separation from parents and caregivers becomes a trauma itself, placing children at risk for stark negative outcomes in the future. The prognosis worsens the younger the child is at the time of separation and the longer the child is separated from the caregiver. Furthermore, children traveling with their parents across the border likely already had preexisting trauma which contributed to the family’s initial decision to flee their country of origin (Perreita & Ornelas, 2013). If not addressed, the consequences of separations can render these children future adults with difficulties in all spheres of functioning.

Policy recommendations include reunification of children and their caregivers expeditiously. Upon doing so, provide short-term trauma-informed culturally sensitive therapy to address the trauma incurred crossing the border as well as the trauma of the temporarily severed caregiver-child relationship during the separation.

HHS OIG (2019). HHS OIG: Many children separated from parents, guardians before Ms. L v. ICE court order and some separations continue. Washington, D.C.

Muniz de la Pena, C. M., Pinada, L., & Punsky (2019). Working with parents and children separated at the border: Examining the impact of the zero-tolerance policy and beyond. Journal of Child and Adolescent Trauma, 12(2), 153-164.

Perreira, K. M., & Ornelas, I. (2013). Painful passages: Traumatic experiences and posttraumatic stress among U.S. immigrant Latino adolescents and their primary caregivers. International Immigration Review, 47(4), 76-105.

Pew Research Center (2019). Border apprehensions increased in 2018 – especially for migrant families.

Amnesty International (2018). Catastrophic immigration policies resulted in more family separations than previously disclosed.

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